What are Chinese submarines doing in the Indian Ocean, far from China’s maritime backyard?

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The Huffington Post

China, although an outside power, is seeking to carve out a role for itself in the Indian Ocean region through its Maritime Silk Road initiative. The Maritime Silk Road — along with an overland Silk Road to connect China with Central Asia, the Caspian Sea basin and beyond — bears the imprint of President Xi Jinping, who has articulated a more expansive role for China than any modern Chinese leader other than Mao Zedong.

China’s quiet maneuvering in the Indian Ocean, where it is seeking to challenge America’s sway and chip away at India’s natural-geographic advantage, draws strength from its more assertive push for dominance in the South China Sea — the critical corridor between the Pacific and Indian oceans. With China converting tiny, largely submerged reefs into islands that can host military facilities and personnel, the South China Sea has become pivotal to the contest for influence in the Indian Ocean and the larger Indo-Pacific region.

The dual Silk Road initiatives — also labeled the “One Belt and One Road” by Beijing — are part of Xi’s strategy for China to break out of the East Asia mold and become a more global power, with its clout extending to the Middle East. The projects will enable China to build economic leverage and help pull regional countries closer to its orbit.

Not a Marshall Plan

The twin initiatives, however, are not a Chinese version of America’s altruistic post-World War II Marshall Plan. Rather, at a time of slowing economic growth in China, they have been designed to win lucrative contracts for Chinese state-run companies by presenting commercial penetration as benevolent investment and credit as aid. Beijing indeed is doing a great job in fobbing off overseas business as economic aid.

The contracts that China is bagging will help it to deal with its problem of overproduction at home. From a $10.6 billion railroad project in Thailand to more than $20 billion worth of new power projects in Pakistan, China is emphasizing infrastructure exports.

By embarking on connecting China’s restive Xinjiang region with the Arabian Sea through a 3,000-kilometer overland transportation corridor to Pakistan’s Chinese-built Gwadar port, Xi has made Pakistan the central link between the maritime and overland Silk Roads. This corridor through Pakistan-held Kashmir will hook up the two Silk Roads, besides permitting China to challenge India in its maritime backyard.

China is also seeking to tap the Indian Ocean’s rich mineral wealth, and is inviting India to join hands with it in deep seabed mining there. Yet it opposes any Indian-Vietnamese collaboration in the South China Sea. “Your sea is our sea but my sea is my sea” seems to be the new Chinese saying.

Purchasing Friends

More broadly, the Silk Road initiatives mesh with Xi’s larger strategy of co-opting regional states, especially by integrating them with China’s economy and security. According to the Chinese conservative scholar Yan Xuetong, the “lie low, bide your time” dictum of the late strongman Deng Xiaoping is no longer relevant and has been replaced by Xi’s more ambitious and assertive policy toward smaller countries. In Yan’s words, “We let them benefit economically and, in return, we get good political relationships. We should ‘purchase’ the relationships.”

One example of how China has sought to “purchase” friendships was the major contracts it signed with Sri Lanka’s now-ousted president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, to turn that strategically located Indian Ocean country into a major stop on China’s nautical “road.” The new president, Maithripala Sirisena, said on the election-campaign trail that the Chinese projects were ensnaring Sri Lanka in a “debt trap.”

In his election manifesto, without naming China, Sirisena warned: “The land that the White Man took over by means of military strength is now being obtained by foreigners by paying ransom to a handful of persons. This robbery is taking place before everybody in broad daylight… If this trend continues for another six years, our country would become a colony and we would become slaves.”

The Maritime Silk Road initiative, with its emphasis on high-visibility infrastructure projects, targets key littoral states located along the great trade arteries in the Indian Ocean, the new global center of trade and energy flows. This critical ocean region, extending from Australia to the Middle East and Southern Africa, is likely to determine the wider geopolitics, maritime order and balance of power in Asia, the Persian Gulf and beyond.

o-MAP-570Through its Maritime Silk Road, China is challenging the existing balance of power in the Indian Ocean. Its effort involves securing port projects along vital sea lanes; building energy and transportation corridors to China through Myanmar and Pakistan; and assembling a “string of pearls” in the form of refueling stations and naval-access outposts along the great trade arteries.

China’s interest in the Indian Ocean has grown steadily since 2008, when it embarked on a naval mission as part of a multilateral effort to combat piracy off the Horn of Africa. It was the first time the Chinese navy had deployed that far in 600 years.

Chinese Submarines in Colombo

Illustrating how China blends its economic and military interests, Chinese attack submarines last fall undertook their first known voyages to the Indian Ocean, with two subs docking at the new Chinese-built and Chinese-owned container terminal at Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo. After building Sri Lanka’s southern port of Hambantota, China now wants to construct a major stop on its nautical “road” in the form of a $1.4 billion city, roughly the size of Monaco, on reclaimed land off Colombo. Beijing is also interested in leasing one of the 1,200 islands of the politically torn Maldives.

Under Xi, China has moved to a proactive posture to shape its external security environment, using trade and investment to expand its sphere of strategic influence while simultaneously asserting territorial and maritime claims against its neighbors. The Maritime Silk Road project — part of Xi’s increasing focus on the seas — is driven by his belief that the maritime domain holds the key to China achieving preeminence in Asia.

In this light, the new Asian order will be determined not so much by developments in East Asia as by the contest for major influence in the Indian Ocean, the maritime center of the world.

© China US Focus, 2015.

Obama’s lesson in how to not make peace in Afghanistan

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BY BRAHMA CHELLANEYThe Japan Times

p9-Chellaney-a-20150513-870x593The just-concluded exploratory “peace” talks in Qatar between Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government and the Taliban militia obscure the continuing combat role in Afghanistan of the United States, which facilitated these discussions. Months after U.S. President Barack Obama declared an end to America’s “combat role” in Afghanistan, U.S. troops are still regularly carrying out strikes on Taliban positions, while U.S. special operations forces continue to raid suspected insurgent hideouts.

The U.S., after militarily toppling the Taliban from power in Afghanistan in 2001, has spent 14 years battling this militia in a still-raging war whose goal in recent time has turned farcically to making peace with the enemy. The result is that America’s longest war in history is getting even longer, with Obama’s overtures to the Taliban exposing fatal flaws in his Afghan policy.

Amending the name of the U.S.-led NATO intervention in Afghanistan from Operation Enduring Freedom to Operation Resolute Support with effect from Jan. 1 has changed little, despite the Afghan forces shouldering increased warfighting responsibilities.

The White House claims that U.S. strikes now are essentially for protection of American soldiers still stationed in Afghanistan and for combating al-Qaida remnants. In truth, it is the Taliban’s advances that are triggering everyday U.S. combat missions, including warplane and drone attacks and Special Operations raids.

Ghani, who has yet to appoint a defense minister, allows the U.S. to run the war, content to play second fiddle to Gen. John F. Campbell, the top American commander in Afghanistan.

The Taliban militia, despite its recent talks with the Afghan government, has stepped up attacks on members of Afghanistan’s military and police. One such attack, which inflicted heavy casualties on a police unit in Badakhshan province, occurred while the talks were under way in Qatar.

Civilians, however, continue to bear the brunt of the fighting. The United Nations documented 10,548 civilian casualties — a record — in increased ground fighting just last year.

Obama has already missed the 2014 deadline he himself laid down for withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan. Now he is set to miss his revised deadline to pull out U.S. troops by January 1, 2016. Scrapping the scheduled halving by this year-end of the about 10,000 U.S. troops still deployed, the White House recently decided to maintain the current force level into 2016. Indeed, the duration of U.S. military presence has become open-ended.

The war, which has left 2,315 American troops killed and 20,000 wounded, has already cost nearly $1 trillion.

Obama’s premature declaration that America’s long military campaign against the Taliban is over will be remembered much like his predecessor George W. Bush’s 2003 “Mission Accomplished” speech on the Iraq war. It was Obama that ended Bush’s Iraq war. Yet by 2014, Obama was back at war in Iraq, relying on the same 2002 congressional authorization that Bush secured for military action there.

In Afghanistan, the main enemy of U.S. forces is the Pakistan-backed Taliban, which has already inflicted far more casualties among American and allied forces than al-Qaida and the Islamic State have managed to do in the countries where they operate. Yet Obama refuses to treat the medieval-theology-hewing Taliban as a terrorist organization. Indeed, the White House has sought to paint the Taliban as a moderate force that can be politically accommodated in Afghanistan’s power structure as part of a peace deal.

Obama’s plans, however, have been upset by the Taliban continuing to play for time. The militia, for example, has rebuffed the idea of a ceasefire.

Still, Obama’s pursuit of a peace deal led him to release top Taliban figures from Guantanamo Bay last year and to allow the Taliban in 2013 to set up in Qatar’s capital Doha a virtual embassy in exile, complete with a flag and other trappings of a diplomatic mission.

Five hardened Taliban militants (two of them wanted for war crimes) were freed not so much to secure the release of a U.S. soldier — Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who has now been charged with desertion — as to set the stage for talks with the Taliban, which had sought their freedom as a precondition for direct talks. The release of the five — the “hardest of hard core,” according to Senator John McCain — belied U.S. claims that it doesn’t negotiate with militants over hostages or seek a deal with terrorists. Two of them, Mohammad Fazie and Mullah Nori, are suspected of carrying out massacres of Sunni Tajiks and Shiite Hazaras in Afghanistan.

The Taliban’s Doha office, which was shut after its opening angered then Afghan President Hamid Karzai, has become active again, as the U.S. has eased some restrictions on the Taliban leadership, including travel bans.

Tragically, Obama’s overtures to the Taliban have yielded little more than talks about talks, with the militia dragging its feet on negotiating a peace deal. The May 3-4 “unofficial” talks in Qatar — hosted by the Qatari government and the Pugwash Council — produced only broad thoughts, including that “foreign forces have to leave Afghanistan soon,” that Afghanistan will have an “Islamic” government, and that more discussions are necessary to sustain the “peace process.”

The Obama policy has failed to get the Pakistani military to stop sheltering Taliban’s top leadership or to cease treating the militia as an invaluable asset for gaining “strategic depth” in Afghanistan against India. Obama has showered Pakistan with generous aid to secure its cooperation, unveiling $1 billion recently in new assistance flow and another $1 billion package of missiles, helicopters and other weapons.

More fundamentally, Obama’s faltering strategy to win over the Taliban serves as a cautionary tale of how not to make peace with an enemy. Indeed, in a reflection of America’s shrinking options, its success or failure in Afghanistan now hinges on a limited issue — whether it can prevent the Taliban from marching into Kabul.

Despite Obama’s decision to put off a further drawdown of U.S. forces, the Taliban continues to incrementally gain ground. For example, its forces have advanced to the outskirts of the capital of the northern province of Kunduz.

The Taliban, with its top leadership ensconced in Pakistan, no longer has a centralized command and command. Its field commanders are becoming increasingly autonomous.

Worried about desertions from its ranks to the ISIS, a new player in Afghanistan that claimed responsibility for the April 18 series of deadly explosions in the eastern city of Jalalabad that left at least 34 people dead, the Taliban knows that a peace deal offering Obama what he wants — a way to declare victory before his exit from office — will be its death knell. In fact, to stop the erosion in its support, the Taliban is seeking to match the brutal tactics of the ISIS.

The Taliban’s larger strategy to return to power is simply to wait out the Americans.

Before it is too late, Obama must replace his wishful peace-deal pursuit with a clear focus on bolstering the Afghan security forces and finding ways to eliminate the Taliban’s cross-border sanctuaries in Pakistan.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of “Water: Asia’s New Battleground,” winner of the 2012 Bernard Schwartz Award.

© The Japan Times, 2015.

China and Pakistan: Little in common yet the closest of allies

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Brahma Chellaney, The Japan Times

pakistan470080792President Xi Jinping’s recent Islamabad visit, by unveiling agreements valued at $28 billion, shows that China has made Pakistan the central link between its dual Silk Road initiatives. While the maritime Silk Road is the meretriciously benign name for China’s “string of pearls” strategy, the overland Silk Road project has been designed to advance Chinese interests in Central Asia, the Caspian Sea basin and beyond.

These initiatives are part of China’s larger strategy to break out of the East Asia mold and become a more global power.

Xi has now embarked on connecting China’s restive Xinjiang region with the Arabian Sea through a 3,000-kilometer overland transportation corridor to Pakistan’s Chinese-built Gwadar port. Known as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, this $46 billion project through Pakistan-held Kashmir will hook up China’s maritime and overland Silk Roads and increase Pakistan’s pivotal importance for Beijing.

When an Indian prime minister visits the Myanmar-bordering Arunachal Pradesh (a large Himalayan territory whose control by India only China questions), or India and Vietnam jointly explore for offshore oil in the South China Sea, China protests loudly, claiming it is “disputed territory.” But the Xi-pushed corridor will traverse an internationally recognized disputed region — Pakistan-held Kashmir — where China has been enlarging its military footprint.

An influx of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops into the Pakistani Kashmir’s Shiite-majority Gilgit-Baltistan region in recent years, to supposedly guard Chinese strategic projects there, has resulted in Chinese military presence close to Pakistan’s line of control with India in Kashmir.

The scenario presents India with a two-front theater in Kashmir in the event of a war with either country. This threat is also being highlighted by PLA officers conducting field exercises close to Pakistan’s line of control with India to train Pakistani army troops in the use of Chinese-supplied weapons.

More fundamentally, India is contained geopolitically by the longstanding axis between China and Pakistan, involving, among other things, covert nuclear, missile and intelligence cooperation. With serious strains emerging in Beijing’s relationship with North Korea, Pakistan is now clearly China’s only real ally.

China’s nexus with Pakistan has long been likened to the closeness between lips and teeth, with Beijing recently calling Pakistan its “irreplaceable all-weather friend.” The two often boast of being “iron brothers.” Of late, though, their description of their relationship has become more flowery — “taller than the mountains, deeper than the oceans, stronger than steel, and sweeter than honey.”

Paradoxically, China and Pakistan have little in common, yet boast one of the closest relationships in international diplomacy. Their axis has been built on a shared objective to tie India down, as former state department official Daniel Markey says in his 2013 book, No Exit From Pakistan. Weapon transfers, loans and infrastructure projects allow China to use Pakistan as a cost-effective counterweight to India.

Pakistan, for example, developed its nuclear-weapons capability with Chinese aid and U.S. indulgence, highlighting the fact that no other state has received Chinese and American support in parallel on a sustained basis extending for decades. Indeed, the more Pakistan has become a jihadist snake pit, the greater has been China’s leeway to increase its strategic penetration of that country.

For India, the implications of the growing nexus are particularly stark because both China and Pakistan stake claims to substantial swaths of Indian land and continue to collaborate on weapons of mass destruction.

Significantly, as China’s involvement in strategic projects in Pakistan-held Kashmir has grown, it has openly started needling India on Kashmir, one-fifth of which is under Chinese occupation. It has employed innovative ways to question India’s sovereignty over Kashmir and stepped up military incursions into Indian Kashmir’s Buddhist Ladakh region.

China is clearly signaling that Kashmir is where the Sino-Pakistan nexus can squeeze India. Its military pressure on Arunachal Pradesh, located at the other end of the Himalayas, seems more intended to distract from its Kashmir designs.

Xi’s visit indeed was a reminder that Pakistan-held Kashmir serves as the artery of the Sino-Pakistan nexus.

Xi, who has articulated a more expansive role for China in the world than any modern Chinese leader other than Mao Zedong, showed how high-visibility infrastructure projects drive China’s promotion of commercial and strategic interests. Much of the Chinese funding unveiled during Xi’s visit will be for power projects, including the $1.4-billion Karot Dam, located on the Pakistan-held Kashmir’s border with the Punjab province. This dam is the first project to be financed by China’s new $40-billion Silk Road Fund.

As if to highlight that China treats Pakistan as its newest colony, Xi’s package of power projects will be Chinese-owned, including the Karot Dam station, with the Pakistani government committed to buying power at a preset rate. The power projects, in essence, are to use Pakistan’s resources for Chinese state-run companies to generate profits for repatriation.

In another example of the puppet-puppeteer equation and the risk of Pakistan turning into a Chinistan, Islamabad has given Beijing 40-year exclusive rights to run the port at Gwadar, which is likely to double up as a key outpost for the Chinese navy and serve as China’s first overseas naval station.

The Xi-launched corridor — a network of roads, railway and pipelines — will give China access to the Indian Ocean, thus challenging India in its maritime backyard and opening a new threat for it. The corridor’s transportation links will also allow China to rapidly come to Pakistan’s aid in the event of a war with India.

Moreover, by transforming Pakistan into a client state of the Chinese economy, the corridor will tighten China’s grip over that country, thus preventing it from emulating the example of Myanmar or Sri Lanka to escape Beijing’s clutches. In return for the contracts and other concessions, China will offer Pakistan protection, including diplomatic cover at the United Nations.

However, Pakistan’s insurrection-torn sprawling province of Baluchistan — home to Gwadar — stands out as the Achilles heel of China’s corridor initiative, despite the Pakistani decision during Xi’s visit to create a special security force to protect Chinese projects.

China thinks in the long term. Pakistan — set to get delivery of eight Chinese attack submarines — is now China’s launch pad for playing a bigger role in the Indian Ocean and Middle East, besides serving as a linchpin of its India-containment strategy. China’s land corridor to the Arabian Sea will extend India’s encirclement by the PLA from the Kashmir land borders to the Indian Ocean sea lanes.

No country in the world other than India confronts a strengthening nexus between two revisionist nuclear-armed neighbors with a proven track record of covert actions in breach of international norms. The corridor constitutes China’s new pincer strategy. India — like the proverbial frog in a gradually heating pot of water not realizing the danger until it is too late — can stay silent and passive at its own peril.

Brahma Chellaney, a long-standing contributor to The Japan Times, is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including “Water: Asia’s New Battleground,” winner of the 2012 Bernard Schwartz Award. His latest book is “Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.”

© The Japan Times, 2015.

China reinvents ‘string of pearls’ as Maritime Silk Road

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In contrast to Deng’s “lie low, bide your time” dictum, Xi’s approach is xiong xin bo bo (full of big ambitions)

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkie Asian Review

For years, China has pursued a “string of pearls” strategy to create a network of infrastructure projects and staging posts stretching from its eastern coast to the Middle East along the great trade arteries in order to gain strategic clout and naval access. But more recently, China has worked to ease growing concerns in Asia and beyond over its geopolitical aims by rebranding “string of pearls” — a term coined by U.S. consultancy firm Booz Allen Hamilton in a 2005 report for the Pentagon — as the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road” initiative. But can a simple name change allay suspicions that China’s true goal is regional domination?

Stripped of its rhetoric, the Maritime Silk Road initiative — just like the “string of pearls” project — is designed to make China the hub of a new order in Asia and the Indian Ocean region. And just as the “string of pearls” focused on the great trade arteries, the initiative targets key littoral states that sit astride major access routes or are located near choke points. It follows the same route from which, historically, these countries drew wealth and strength.

Coining a name to shake off a foreign-imposed term allows Beijing to market the initiative as a “win-win” trade connectivity project. For small, internationally neglected states, it opens the way for an infusion of major Chinese aid and investment. And for China, it is opening lucrative contracts for its state-run companies and aiding its strategic penetration of regional states. Chinese construction of ports, railroads, highways and pipelines helps project China’s image as a strong but benevolent power. It also permits Beijing to pull regional countries closer to its orbit through economic leverage and soft power.

More broadly, China aims to use the Maritime Silk Road project to counter U.S. President Barack Obama’s “pivot” to Asia, even though the “pivot” remains more rhetorical than real, largely because of American foreign policy’s preoccupation with the Muslim world. For China, economic development is a key drawcard card to help carve out a steadily enlarging sphere of influence in the region.

Silk_routeThe initiative bears the stamp of President Xi Jinping, who is pushing it with a $40 billion Silk Road Fund and the new China-sponsored Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Xi announced the Maritime Silk Road initiative during a trip to Indonesia in October 2013, just a month after he unveiled an overland “Silk Road” project to connect China with Central Asia, the Caspian Sea basin and Europe. The new AIIB, according to Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui, would finance infrastructure construction under both initiatives.

The Maritime Silk Road — to be ultimately protected by Chinese warships — is part of Xi’s focus on the seas that includes employing gunboat diplomacy to challenge Japan in the East China Sea, enlarging China’s control over some of the world’s most strategic waterways in the South China Sea, and making China an important player in the Indian Ocean region. Xi, who has articulated a more expansive role for China than any modern Chinese leader other than Mao Zedong, is using overseas infrastructure projects to extend China’s commercial and strategic interests.

Xi’s call last November for China to establish “big country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics” served as a fresh reminder that he is abandoning Deng Xiaoping’s dictum “hide your brightness, bide your time.” Deng’s “hide and bide” approach was designed to allow China to focus on economic growth and political stability, while Xi’s approach is xiong xin bo bo (full of big ambitions).

Under Xi, China has moved to a proactive posture to shape its external security environment. It is pursuing a muscular approach by boosting its military buildup, asserting territorial claims against its neighbors, and using trade and investment to expand its sphere of influence to the strategic domain.

China’s efforts to disturb the territorial and maritime status quo are best illustrated by the remarkable speed with which it has been building up land mass in the South China Sea, hundreds of kilometers from its mainland. By converting tiny, largely submerged reefs into islands that can host military facilities and personnel, China has highlighted the scale of its ambition to hold sway over vital sea lanes of communication between the Indian and Pacific oceans.

Added to this is China’s frenzied submarine-building program, with the country now boasting more diesel- and nuclear-powered vessels than the U.S., according to Vice Adm. Joseph Mulloy, U.S. deputy chief of naval operations for capabilities and resources. Mulloy recently told the U.S. House Armed Services Committee’s seapower subcommittee that China is extending the geographic areas of operation for its submarines and keeping them at sea for longer periods of deployment.

Soft and hard tactics

China’s construction of seaports, railroads and highways in littoral states contrasts with its broader military assertiveness. Such construction, however, is integral to a strategy that fuses soft and hard tactics to convince regional states that it is in their interest to join forces with China and accept it as the regional leader. In fact, the Maritime Silk Road does little more than attempt to recast the “string of pearls” strategy in meretriciously benign terms.

Paradoxically, China’s whipping up of nationalism at home goes hand-in-hand with its project to globalize and build a vast trading network along the ancient Maritime Silk Road. And even as China works quietly to alter the territorial and maritime status quo with several neighbors, it presents itself to regional states as a partner in their development.

How China blends its economic and military interests was illustrated last autumn by the separate docking of two Chinese attack submarines at the new Chinese-built container terminal at Sri Lanka’s Colombo Harbour. The $500 million container terminal is majority owned by Chinese state companies.

Beijing has been attracted by Sri Lanka’s strategic location, close to the world’s busiest sea lanes. After China completed building Sri Lanka’s southern port of Hambantota, Xi inaugurated construction of a $1.4 billion Chinese-funded project to create a city roughly the size of Monaco on reclaimed land off Colombo, the capital. The planned sprawling complex — currently embroiled in a major political and environmental controversy in Sri Lanka — is intended to become a major stop on China’s nautical “road,” for whose security Chinese warships will increasingly turn up at harbors.

Meanwhile, China’s desire for a permanent military presence in the Indian Ocean — where it has already carried out three deployments — is being whetted by its control of Pakistan’s Gwadar Port, near the Iranian border. Located strategically at the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz, a gateway for a third of the world’s traded oil, the deep-water port epitomizes how an increasingly ambitious China, brimming with hard cash from blazing economic growth, is building new transportation, trade, energy and naval links to advance its interests.

The Gwadar Port Authority chairman recently revealed that Pakistan has granted China 40-year rights to operate the Chinese-built port. Beijing is investing another $1.62 billion in new infrastructure, including a container terminal, an international airport, and an expressway linking the harbor with the coastline.

Strategic corridors

As Xi’s April 20-21 Pakistan visit attested, China is working to connect its restive Xinjiang region with the Arabian Sea by building a 3,000-kilometer overland transportation corridor to Gwadar through Pakistan-held Kashmir. Known as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, this $46 billion project will hook up China’s maritime and overland Silk Roads. Contracts worth $28 billion were unveiled during Xi’s visit under the corridor plan.

The strategic corridor will allow Beijing to shorten the route of its oil imports from the Middle East and Africa to barely one quarter of the current 12,000km. The oil will be offloaded at Gwadar for transport by pipeline to western China. Beijing is building a similar network of highways, railroads and energy pipelines from Myanmar’s coast to southern China.

China has operationally taken over Gwadar Port to develop not just its commercial value but also its potential as a naval outpost overlooking Gulf shipping lanes. Having insisted that Gwadar’s role was purely commercial, Beijing was deeply embarrassed when Ahmed Mukhtar, Pakistan’s then-defense minister, disclosed in 2011 that Pakistan had asked China to begin building a naval base there. “We have asked our Chinese brothers to please build a naval base at Gwadar,” he said.

Given China’s proclivity for strategic stealth, its work even on the commercial port at Gwadar was launched quietly. The planned naval base is now being projected as a refueling and works station, which China’s own submarines could use to extend their range in the Indian Ocean.

China has also sought to court the Maldives, a group of strategically located islands in the Indian Ocean where the first democratically elected president was forced at gunpoint to resign in 2012. Xi, during a visit last September, unveiled new Chinese-run infrastructure projects there, calling the Maldives “an important stop” on the Maritime Silk Road. China remains interested in leasing one of its 1,200 islands.

The Indian Ocean is central to Beijing’s intent to fashion a Sino-centric Asia. China’s quiet maneuvering, chipping away at India’s natural geographic advantage, draws strength from its more assertive push for dominance in the South and East China Seas.

In this light, China’s aggressive maritime strategy has emerged as the biggest challenge in the Indo-Pacific region. Just as the U.S. dominates the Western hemisphere, China wants to gain pre-eminence in Asia by widening the power gap with its most formidable neighbors — Japan, Russia and India. It believes the maritime domain holds the key to achieving its goal, thus prompting the launch of the Maritime Silk Road initiative. But success will elude Beijing if other important players in Asia establish a strategic constellation with the aim of inducing China to accept the status quo.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of “Water: Asia’s New Battleground,” winner of the 2012 Asia Society Bernard Schwartz Book Award.

© Nikkie Asian Review, 2015.

Obama’s Failed Afghan Peace Strategy

A column internationally syndicated by Project Syndicate.

2e8098f118f74f0d1c11096a1728d45a.landscapeSince toppling the Taliban regime in Afghanistan 14 years ago, the United States has been waging a non-stop battle against its foot soldiers. Locked in a war that has already cost nearly $1 trillion, the US has now shifted its focus to making peace with the enemy. It will not work.

Months after President Barack Obama declared that America’s “combat role” in Afghanistan was over, the US and its allies continue to carry out airstrikes on Taliban positions regularly, while American special operations forces continue to raid suspected insurgent hideouts. In fact, beyond an increased role for Afghan forces in the fighting, the situation in the country has changed little since “Operation Enduring Freedom” was renamed “Operation Resolute Support.”

Obama’s premature declaration will be remembered much like his predecessor George W. Bush’s 2003 “Mission Accomplished” speech, which proclaimed the end of major combat operations in Iraq long before they actually ended. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of casualties in Iraq were yet to occur.

Nor is this the first time that Obama has jumped the gun. In October 2011, he announced that he was bringing “the long war in Iraq” to an end by withdrawing all US troops. Yet, last year, the US was back at war in Iraq, this time in an effort to rein in the Islamic State, with Obama relying on the same congressional authorization that Bush secured for military action there a decade before.

In Afghanistan, the Obama administration has already missed the 2014 deadline, set in 2011, for withdrawing US forces. And it has rescinded another self-imposed deadline, having scrapped its plan to halve the number of US troops still deployed in Afghanistan – currently around 10,000 – by the end of this year.

So America’s military intervention in Afghanistan is now open-ended – and the fighting is not subsiding. On the contrary, the recent escalation of Taliban attacks indicates that the approaching summer fighting season will be among the most intense since the war began.

The Taliban has already inflicted far more casualties among US and allied forces than Al Qaeda and the Islamic State combined. A total of 2,215 American troops have been killed in Afghanistan, and another 20,000 wounded, since 2001. The United Nations documented a record-breaking 10,548 conflict-related civilian casualties just last year.

Yet Obama has refused to designate the Taliban as a terrorist organization, leaving it off the list of terrorist networks mentioned, for example, in his recent joint statement with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Instead, his administration has sought to portray the Taliban as a moderate force that can be accommodated within Afghanistan’s political system.

Moreover, in 2013, Obama allowed the Taliban to establish what was essentially an embassy in exile in Doha, Qatar, complete with a flag and other diplomatic trappings. And, last year, the US released five top Taliban leaders – including Mohammad Fazl and Mullah Nori, who are suspected of carrying out massacres of Sunni Tajiks and Shia Hazaras in Afghanistan – from the Guantánamo Bay detention center.

In releasing the five, the Obama administration claimed that it was simply doing what was necessary to secure the return by the Taliban of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl (who has now been charged with desertion). But the real objective was clear: to lay the groundwork for direct talks with the Taliban. The move not only belied US claims that it does not negotiate with terrorists; it also failed to bring the Taliban militia to the negotiating table.

With these concessions, the US has revealed to the Taliban – and the world – its desperation to achieve a face-saving settlement that would enable it, at long last, to escape the Afghan quagmire. It is no wonder that the Taliban chief, Mullah Muhammad Omar, hailed the release of his five comrades as evidence that his militia is “closer to the harbor of victory.”

The Obama administration’s desperation is similarly apparent in the generous aid that it has provided to Pakistan, including an imminent arms deal worth almost $1 billion, in an effort to secure the country’s cooperation on counter-terrorism. Yet the Pakistani military continues to shelter the top leadership of the Taliban, which it regards as an invaluable asset for gaining “strategic depth” in Afghanistan against India.

America’s success or failure in Afghanistan now hinges on a single limited issue: whether it can prevent the Taliban from marching into Kabul. By highlighting its desperate search for an exit, the US has given the Taliban the upper hand, letting the militia’s leaders know that they can simply wait it out.

Delaying a further drawdown of US forces will be inadequate to convince the Taliban otherwise. With its top leadership ensconced in Pakistan and its field commanders in Afghanistan becoming increasingly autonomous, the Taliban no longer has a centralized command. And, fearing desertions to the Islamic State, it knows that giving Obama what he wants – a peace deal that enables him to declare victory before his term ends in January 2017 – would be its death knell.

America’s faltering Afghan strategy should serve as a cautionary tale of how not to make peace with an enemy. It is time for Obama to recognize that a political settlement with the Taliban is simply wishful thinking. Instead, he should focus on bolstering Afghanistan’s security forces and identifying ways to eliminate the Taliban militia’s sanctuaries in Pakistan. After all, terrorists are not in the business of making peace; America should not think otherwise.

Great powers surf to conquer

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times, March 12, 2015

indian-ocean-bases-180c4Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s three-nation Indian Ocean tour attests to this region’s critical importance for Indian security, including preventing India’s encirclement by hostile powers. If China were to gain the upper hand in the Indian Ocean region, it will mark the end of India’s great-power ambitions. India thereafter will be seen as merely a sub-regional power whose clout does not extend across South Asia, with Pakistan challenging it in the west and China in the north and south.

India’s tactical and strategic disadvantages along its land frontiers are more than compensated by its immense geographic advantage in the Indian Ocean. Such is peninsular India’s vantage location in the Indian Ocean — the world’s premier energy and trade seaway — that the country is positioned dominantly astride vital sea lanes of communication (SLOCs), including China’s emergent Maritime Silk Road.

Despite India’s inherent maritime leverage, its land-frontier compulsions have instilled a landlocked mindset. With its attention fixated on the disputed land borders, India — far from exploiting its advantage on the maritime front — often has difficulty facing up to the fact that it is a major maritime country. Worse still, India diplomatically neglected the Indian Ocean region in the 25-year period from 1989 when it was governed by coalitions. Tellingly, Modi is the first prime minister to visit Seychelles in 34 years and Sri Lanka in 28 years.

India’s long neglect has become China’s strategic gain. China’s quiet manoeuvring in the Indian Ocean, where it is chipping away at India’s natural-geographic advantage through multibillion-dollar projects along the great trade arteries, draws strength from its more assertive push for dominance in the South and East China Seas.

The Indian Ocean promises to shape the wider geopolitics and balance of power in Asia and beyond. India, however, finds itself on the back foot in its own strategic backyard. According to Jawaharlal Nehru, “History has shown that whatever power controls the Indian Ocean has, in the first instance, India’s sea-borne trade at her mercy and, in the second, India’s very independence itself.” The irony is that this is the only ocean in the world named after a single country.

China has been assiduously pursuing a strategy to build a “string of pearls” across the Indian Ocean so as to gain strategic clout and naval access. By rebranding the “string of pearls” strategy as a “21st-century maritime silk road” project, China has now sought to disguise its real intentions. This signature initiative of President Xi Jinping merely recasts the “string of pearls” strategy in meretriciously benign terms. Stripped of its rhetoric, the Silk Road — just like the “string of pearls” — is designed to redraw Asia’s geopolitical map by making China the preeminent power.

The Silk Road indeed exemplifies China’s use of aid, investment and other leverage to pull littoral states closer to its orbit, including through the construction of seaports, railroads and highways. Such construction may provide a counterpoint to China’s military assertiveness. Yet it is integral to a strategy that fuses soft and hard tactics to bind countries to China’s economy and security and to convince them that it is in their interest to accept China as Asia’s alpha power.

How China blends its economic and military interests was illustrated last autumn by the separate docking of two Chinese submarines at the newly opened, Chinese-majority-owned container terminal at Colombo Harbour. China’s desire for permanent military presence in the Indian Ocean, where it has carried out three deployments, is being whetted by its control of Pakistan’s Gwadar port, located strategically at the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz. China has operationally taken over the port it built at Gwadar to develop not its commercial value (which remains unpromising) but its potential as a key naval outpost.

Given the emerging challenge to India in its maritime backyard, Modi must develop a credible strategy to counter it. His charm-offensive tour of regional states with offers of new economic and defence tie-ups marks just a beginning. Modi did well to drop the Maldives from his itinerary, given the political mess there. But he could have delayed his Sri Lanka trip until after the forthcoming parliamentary elections there, especially given the fact that his visit comes barely a month after President Maithripala Sirisena’s India tour.

In keeping with his highly personalized imprint on diplomacy, Modi thus far has relied on bilateral summits to open new avenues for cooperation and collaboration. Diplomacy alone will not suffice. Sirisena, for example, makes his first official visits to Beijing and Islamabad soon after hosting Modi.

To prevent Chinese military encirclement, India needs to significantly accelerate naval modernization. It must build sufficient naval prowess to potentially interdict Chinese SLOCs in the Indian Ocean and hold the Chinese economy hostage if a Himalayan war were thrust upon it again. A major holdback of tanker traffic in wartime would be a crippling jolt to the Chinese economy, though it might not alter the war’s outcome.

Even as the Chinese military keeps Indian ground forces busy in peacetime by staging Himalayan border incursions and other flare-ups, the oil and liquefied gas flowing from the Gulf and Africa to China pass through the Indian Ocean unmolested and unimpeded. Over 80% of China’s oil imports pass through the Malacca Strait chokepoint. Boosting SLOC interdiction capability would allow the Indian Navy to dominate key maritime routes and help improve the Chinese military’s behaviour along the Himalayas.

The contest for major influence in the Indian Ocean is pivotal to the success of China’s strategy to fashion a Sino-centric Asia. This is a contest India cannot afford to lose.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

© The Hindustan Times, 2015.

A Silk Glove for China’s Iron Fist

Iron fist

A column internationally syndicated by Project Syndicate.

For years, China has sought to encircle South Asia with a “string of pearls”: a network of ports connecting its eastern coast to the Middle East that would boost its strategic clout and maritime access. Not surprisingly, India and others have regarded this process with serious concern.

Now, however, China is attempting to disguise its strategy, claiming that it wants to create a twenty-first-century maritime Silk Road to improve trade and cultural exchange. But friendly rhetoric can scarcely allay concern in Asia and beyond that China’s strategic goal is to dominate the region.

That concern is well founded. Simply put, the Silk Road initiative is designed to make China the hub of a new order in Asia and the Indian Ocean region. Indeed, by working to establish its dominance along major trade arteries, while instigating territorial and maritime disputes with several neighbors, China is attempting to redraw Asia’s geopolitical map.

The strategic dimension of the maritime Silk Road is underscored by the fact that the People’s Liberation Army has led the debate on the subject. The PLA National Defense University’s Major General Ji Mingkui argues that the initiative can help China to craft a “new image” and “win influence,” especially as the US “pivot” to Asia “loses momentum.”

Yet PLA experts remain eager to disavow the Silk Road initiative’s link with the “string of pearls.” Instead, they compare it to the fifteenth-century expeditions of Zheng He, a Chinese eunuch admiral who led a fleet of treasure ships to Africa. According to Central Military Commission member Sun Sijing, Zheng used the ancient Silk Road without seizing “one inch of land” or seeking “maritime hegemony” (though history attests to his use of military force – for example, executing local rulers – to control maritime chokepoints).

In reality, little distinguishes the maritime Silk Road from the “string of pearls.” Though China is employing ostensibly peaceful tactics to advance the initiative, its primary goal is not mutually beneficial cooperation; it is strategic supremacy. Indeed, the Silk Road is integral to President Xi Jinping’s “China dream” ambitions, which entail restoring China’s past glory and status.

China, especially under Xi, has often used aid, investment, and other economic leverage to compel its neighbors to deepen their economic dependence on – and expand their security cooperation with – the People’s Republic. Xi’s use of a $40 billion Silk Road Fund and the new China-sponsored Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to develop the maritime Silk Road reflects this approach.

Already, China is constructing ports, railroads, highways, and pipelines in the region’s littoral states, not only to facilitate mineral-resource imports and exports of Chinese manufactured goods, but also to advance its strategic military goals. For example, China concluded a multi-billion dollar deal with Pakistan to develop the port at Gwadar, owing to its strategic location at the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz, which more than offsets the port’s limited commercial potential.

Twice last autumn, Chinese attack submarines docked at Sri Lanka’s newly opened, $500 million container terminal at Colombo Harbor – built and majority-owned by Chinese state companies. China has now embarked on a $1.4-billion project to build a sprawling complex roughly the size of Monaco on reclaimed land in Colombo – a “port city” that will become a major stop on China’s nautical “road.”

Zhou Bo, an honorary fellow with the PLA Academy of Military Science, admits that China’s mega-projects “will fundamentally change the political and economic landscape of the Indian Ocean,” while presenting China as a “strong yet benign” power. This is important, because the new Asian order will be determined less by developments in East Asia, where Japan is determined to block China’s rise, than by events in the Indian Ocean, where China is chipping away at India’s longstanding dominance.

India is certainly suspicious of China’s behavior. But China is treading carefully enough that it can continue to advance its goals, without spooking its intended quarry. The American academic John Garver depicted it best using a Chinese fable: “A frog in a pot of lukewarm water feels quite comfortable and safe. He does not notice as the water temperature slowly rises until, at last, the frog dies and is thoroughly cooked.”

Seen in this light, it is not surprising that China has invited India to join the maritime Silk Road initiative. The aim is not only to help calm a suspicious neighbor, but also to slow the development of India’s strategic ties with the US and Japan.

China’s plans for the Silk Road combine economic, diplomatic, energy, and security objectives in an effort to create an expansive network of linked facilities to boost trade, aid strategic penetration, and permit an increasingly potent and active submarine force to play an expanded role. In the process, China aims to fashion an Asian order based not on a balance of power with the US, but on its own hegemony. Only a concert of democracies can block this strategy.